Leaders of Georgia's ruling party have accused the United States of unfair visa policies towards Georgian citizens in response to the West's criticism of Tbilisi's embrace of the recent move by Moscow to allow direct flights with Georgia and abolish visas for Georgians.
"There is no link between the abolition of visa regime and strategic partnership," Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the Georgian Dream party, said on May 11 while commenting on the opposition's criticism that followed Russia's controversial decision the day before. "If so, the US would have introduced direct flights or eased the visa regime for our citizens by now."
The comment was the start of a new line of anti-U.S. rhetoric coming from Tbilisi.
On May 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree lifting a 4-year-old unilateral flight ban with Georgia and reintroducing visa-free travel for Georgian citizens after 23 years.
Both issues had been seen in the context of Moscow's efforts to exert pressure on its southern neighbor and former colony. But Tbilisi warmly embraced the decision, and quickly authorized airlines to operate regular flights between the two countries, drawing dismay from Georgia's Western allies, including the U.S. and the EU, as well as from local pro-Western critics.
Tbilisi pledged to only authorize flights that would not help Russia evade Western sanctions, by following the example of other countries that maintained air links with Moscow after its invasion of Ukraine.
But even if Georgia succeeds in this, it won't spare the country Western scorn for welcoming Russian planes amid Moscow's growing international isolation. And this latest development has added to mounting questions within the overwhelmingly pro-Western country about the government's geopolitical orientation.
So in this case, too, the ruling party reverted to its strategy of hitting out at U.S. policies to deflect criticism.
"It is better for them [the U.S.] to take their own steps related to easing the visa regime, having direct flights, and signing a free trade agreement," Kobakhidze told Georgia's public broadcaster on May 17. "But thirty years have passed and, sadly, it's not even discussed."
The party chairman recalled cases when, he claims, visas were unfairly denied or delayed to Georgian individuals or groups. That included Martve, a 50-member Georgian child singing troupe which, according to Kobakhidze, had to cancel its U.S. tour after the U.S. embassy demanded applications for each individual member instead of accepting a group application, a move that prolonged the process for months.
(There has been speculation in the media that Kobakhidze's own son was among the Martve applicants. Asked about it, the party chairman said "it does not matter," saying that if indeed the entire troupe was left behind because of his son, it would be a "catastrophe".)
Kobakhidze further said that Georgian applicants are half as likely to receive U.S. visas compared to citizens of its neighboring countries, and asserted that this amounted to "discrimination."
Government mouthpiece Imedi TV aired a report on May 17 about Martve's case, repeating Kobakhidze's allegations. The report prompted a response from Kelly Degnan, the U.S. Ambassador to Georgia.
"It's unfortunate that once again Imedi has chosen to broadcast inaccurate information," Degnan told reporters on May 18, saying that the embassy had issued visas to similar artist troupes in past weeks and months. "Sometimes people want to think that they should have special treatment, and not have to go through all the steps involved," the diplomat said.
Degnan further commented on the issue the next day, saying that it's "very simple to get a visa to go to the United States" and that thousands of eligible Georgians who followed the due steps received the visas. But the process "can take time," the ambassador said, so individuals have to plan and apply in advance due to high demand. The diplomat refused to comment on specific cases, citing privacy protections.
Georgians have to apply for visas and go through a strict procedure in order to travel to the United States, unlike the EU where the country has enjoyed visa-free travel since 2017. Last year, Degnan told the Voice of America's Georgian service that the U.S. was observing the dynamics of the country's visa-free travel with the EU to assess Georgia's readiness for a softened visa regime with the U.S.
Over the past years, there has been lots of talk about establishing direct air links between Georgia and the US from both Georgian officials and US diplomats, but flights have not been launched yet due to complex technical and commercial challenges.
It is not the first time that Georgian Dream leaders have referred to the US visa policies in their attempts to fend off criticism. In February, Kobakhidze attributed the growing trend of Georgians taking risky roads through Mexico to illegally arrive in the US to the meager 37 percent rate of approval for Georgians' non-immigrant visa applications. (He was citing 2021 numbers though; the acceptance rate for Georgians in 2022 was 58 percent, according to U.S. official statistics.)
Back then, however, the party chairman said this policy had "positive effects," claiming that a more lenient US visa regime would have led to a worsened net migration rate for Georgia.
The confrontational rhetoric follows a series of spats between Tbilisi and Washington and is part of Georgian leaders' harsh responses to growing Western criticism of their policies. The relations hit another low in April, when the US decided to impose travel bans on key Georgian judges and a former judge for participating in alleged "significant corruption" in the Georgian judiciary.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.